Troubled deeply by the raging inequality in our society and the hold of our nation’s super-rich on the democratic process, my friends and I seek ways to fight back for and with those cast into poverty and vulnerability. At times the struggle seemed overwhelming, that is until Occupy Wall Street built its alternative community in the shadow of Manhattan’s financial district. Soon this Occupy movement inspired a harvest of grassroots protest that spread like wildfire beyond Wall Street itself into the heart of our own cities, especially Toronto’s Bay Street.
I felt compelled to support the Occupy Toronto more directly. So, after a brief visit at the site in St. James Park (partly owned by the city and partly owned by St. James Anglican Cathedral Church) on Sunday Oct. 30, my anti-poverty friends supported my return to Occupy Toronto specifically to carry a petition to the dean of the cathedral asking him to invoke the ancient Biblical law of sanctuary to the encampment if the police tried to evict. In addition I decided to support the protest directly.
With petition in hand I left for Toronto on Friday, Nov. 18 in case Judge David Brown made a decision to evict that very day. Upon arrival I learned that his decision would be announced at 9 a.m. the following Monday. Nonetheless, I stayed overnight, and the next day marched with Occupiers, trade unionists and a friend and former student pastor Peter Lisinski to Toronto City Hall in support of the Occupiers. At that point Peter, his wife Rosarie and I agreed to gather at St. James Park to support the residents should Judge Brown decide to pronounce eviction.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, so on Monday I was back with Pete and Rosarie armed with the petition and our commitment to support this “squatting” justice community. With our roughly sixty signatures we button-holed an unwilling dean with this document for sanctuary and gave it to him. We told him that we felt that the church’s initial support had now fallen into the realm of capitulation to the establishment over Biblical justice. After that brief encounter, we met other Toronto clergy at the park with whom we linked. Soon we reached a consensus that at 11 p.m. we would hold a religious service in support of these bold Occupiers.
In the interim we drifted here and there, spending time at the First Nations sacred fire and attending a general assembly, experiencing a deeply moving and inspiring form of direct democracy and grassroots parliament. In preparation for possible arrest, a United Church pastor named Kathleen and I took on-the-spot non-violent training by three excellent Greenpeace activists. Afterward we gathered for the broadly inclusive religious service. We encouraged the roughly sixty people present in a wide circle to bear witness as any felt inspired and roughly half did just that. The latter part of the service involved breaking of bread and sharing of juice and we concluded with a blessing. The police did not come that night and I was able thankfully to crash at Pete and Rosarie’s place.
As an activist since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King transformed my life while I served my first parish, I applaud Occupy Toronto and all grassroots communities out to transform this tired and unjust world. Given the honour of speaking at the “human mic” in St. James Park I told the crowd that, in spite of many failings, “I try to follow that kick-ass carpenter of Nazareth who pulled an ‘Occupy the Temple’ in first century Jerusalem.” In the very first year of my activism I remember the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. shortly after Dr. King’s death.
They called their tent encampment “Resurrection City.” Yes, it was destroyed, and yes, the more long-lived Occupy cities are being systematically closed down by the forces of legal immorality and disorder.
Yet my friends and I do not lose heart. It was a great privilege to walk in and support another Resurrection City and to taste, as the “Wobblies” cried out, “a new society in the shell of the old!”
Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal is professor emeritus at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary and has taught Christianity for over 31 years.